Tony Zhou’s 3 Tips to Learn How to Deconstruct a Film’s Visual Narrative
Tony Zhou, the creator, editor and narrator of the excellent Every Frame a Painting did an AMA on True Films, a subreddit for cinephiles, where he spent four hours answering about every question thrown at him.
There are a lot of good stuff to discover there, but here is a little selection of topics I thought would be particularly useful for aspiring editors (or video essayists):
3 Tips to Help You Learn How to Deconstruct a Film’s Visual Narrative
Based on a question by Carpeaux via freevo:
As for how to notice this stuff I totally recommend (in rough order):
- Take a class on script analysis. Learn how a director breaks down a script. Then get your hands on a movie script, pick a scene, guess how the director would shoot it, then watch the actual way he/she shot it.
- Bring a film into Final Cut or Premiere or Avid, and just watch it backwards and forwards, muted and unmuted, B&W, color. Watch for camera placement, movement, everything. After you do this for a while, you won’t need to bring the movie into Premiere, you can just do it on the fly.
- If you’ve seen the film before, watch it with an audience and kinda watch them. Their “on-the-fly” reaction to the film will teach you more than many critics. When do they lean in? When do they cross their arms? When do they laugh? Is it at the same place you laughed?
Zhou added later on to filmg1rl:
If you ever want to blow your mind, watch Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” at 4x speed without sound. Not only does the story make perfect sense, the movie is still suspenseful. The whole exercise takes about 20 minutes.
I had never heard that advice up until Zhou mentioned it in one of his Patreon’s video commentary, which I can’t recommend enough if you are into editing, and/or simply learning about filmmaking.
I was glad he shared it again on the Reddit thread, as I think this is very specific tool that about anyone with a computer and an editing program can use today to get better at filmmaking.
What Dumptruck Directing Says About Your Directing Skills[pullquote]Gordon Willis talks about dumptruck directing, capturing every cut away, close up, medium, wide, anything and everything you can get on set, and how that, to him, constitutes bad directing and makes for worse movies. [/pullquote]
Answering an excellent question by CaligariMD:
I have a question about a concept best defined by one of my all time favorite cinematographers, Gordy Willis. He talks about dumptruck directing, capturing every cut away, close up, medium, wide, anything and everything you can get on set, and how that, to him, constitutes bad directing and makes for worse movies.
As an editor myself, I’m torn on this idea – in one hand, I’m sad to report that this “dumptruck directing” is how SO many (digital) movies are made today, and I think often it does make for lack luster scenes and sometimes a montage and form that lacks clarity. However, the other side of the coin I see as cutting an editor out of the equation, and indeed I feel like the role of an editor is a critical one. I’ve talked to young directors who tell me they “don’t believe in editing” and will ONLY shoot the exact sequence they think a scene should cut into (john ford style). I’ve also talked to filmmakers who emphatically believe in coverage and making the film mostly in post.
How do you feel about this dynamic as an editor? A filmmaker? A film analyst?
“Here’s the thing: I want to work for a director whom I trust, and who trusts his or her own instincts.
A lot of people who do dumptruck directing are insecure. You can see it in the footage. You can feel it when you shake their hands. It’s okay to be scared, but one quality I do not like in a director is being afraid of being wrong.
You may not know what you’re doing. Collaborators have said that Terrence Malick often doesn’t know what he’s going to do. That’s fine. He’s not afraid of being wrong. It’s a really weird way of working but if it works for him, great.
My big fear with dumptruck directors is that they get to the editing suite and the same mentality applies. They question every cut. They want to use every angle. They’re afraid that they’ll make the wrong choice. So they make the safest choices, and they make a lot of them.
I’m not saying I want a director to say “My way is the right way and only my way” because sometimes those people also can’t admit they’re wrong.
I’m saying that the job of the director is to have a point-of-view. If you shoot everything, then by definition, you have no point-of-view. As an editor, I now have to impose a point-of-view during editing, which is really hard, because you could change your mind tomorrow and we’d be lost. Your job as a director is to make the best choices you can. Saying “shoot everything” is not making a choice. It’s avoiding your job.
Also you can tell as an audience. When a filmmaker is confident, you can feel it in the first shot. When he or she is indecisive, you can tell within the first two minutes.”
And last but not least:
Zhou’s Reading Recommendations for Editors
For editing, there’s a couple awesome books:
- Walter Murch – In the Blink of an Eye
- Michael Ondaatje – The Conversations with Walter Murch
- Sam O’Steen – Cut to the Chase
- Jerry Lewis – The Total Film-Maker
- David Bordwell – Planet Hong Kong
- Hugo Munsterberg – The Photoplay – A Psychological Study
A massive thanks for True Films for organizing this, for Tony Zhou sharing his thoughts, and for all the subscribers who asked great questions. You can read the full AMA here.